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Cities worldwide aim to pedal into new future

Rental bikes are used on a cycle path in Hyde Park, London, last month during the novel coronavirus outbreak. TOBY MELVILLE/REUTERS

Cycling infrastructure planned to create social distancing space

Cities worldwide are rushing through improvements to cycling infrastructure, as the humble bicycle quickly becomes the ideal mode of transportation for populations emerging from lockdowns due to the novel coronavirus outbreak.

With physical distancing impossible on buses and trains, and the prospect of a surge in car use causing gridlock and air pollution, city planners are tackling the same issue: how to relaunch their economies in the COVID-19 era.

In Europe, public transportation systems in major cities typically take millions of people to work and shops each day, but under the present circumstances, there is not enough safe space.

The mayor of Paris has said it is out of the question for the city to return to pre-coronavirus traffic and pollution levels, while her counterpart in Athens has pledged to “liberate” public space from cars. In Berlin, Milan, Madrid and Brussels, many kilometers of new cycling lanes have quickly been added.

Cities are being radically reshaped in favor of cyclists and pedestrians as empty streets give authorities the opportunity to implement and accelerate large-scale projects.

In the United Kingdom, bike lanes with protected space for cycling, wider sidewalks, safer junctions, and cycle and bus-only corridors will quickly be created in cities as part of a 250 million pound ($312 million) emergency “active travel” fund-the first stage of a 2 billion pound investment announced by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps.

Department for Transport guidance has urged councils across the nation to reallocate road space for rising numbers of cyclists and pedestrians. In towns and cities, some streets could become bike and bus-only, while others remain available for motorists.

A mechanic carries out repairs at a cycle shop in London last month. ALB ERTO PEZZALI/AP

E-scooters, already a common sight in many locations in continental Europe, will be given a trial in some UK cities next month to help encourage more people to stop using public transportation and look to greener alternatives.

In London, there are plans to overhaul the capital’s streets in one of the biggest car-free city initiatives in the world. The mayor of London and Transport for London, or TFL, announced they would work on the “rapid construction” of a strategic cycling network.

More than 50 percent of Londoners usually commute by using public transportation, but TFL has said it can now only manage up to 20 percent of normal passenger levels while maintaining social distancing.

Will Norman, London’s first walking and cycling commissioner, said the COVID-19 crisis has radically changed how cities around the world must look at transportation.

“To be able to restart our economy, by enabling people to get back to work, and to keep us globally competitive, we have no choice but to rapidly repurpose our streets to make more space for people,” Norman said.

“Every city is different. We don’t necessarily have the big, grand boulevards of Napoleonic Paris or the big freeways like in some of the American cities…

“But we have to change how the city works. Not everybody can work from home, so millions of journeys are still going to be made.”

Remaining globally competitive is crucial for London, and with businesses worldwide looking at options for where they base their offices, hard choices are being made.

“I know from speaking to businesses that employee health and well-being is going to be at the forefront of employers’ decision-making,” Norman said. “For London to retain its global city status, it must continue to be one of the most liveable cities in the world.

“Initially, we want London back on its feet, that’s the short-term goal. The restart and recovery is absolutely essential. Allowing people to feel safe walking to their local shops, walking to work, and cycling to work is going to be the first phase of that.

Cyclists take to the Rue de Rivoli in Paris. CHRISTOPHE ENA/AP

Stark choice

Sports body British Cycling has launched a campaign to help people and policymakers make the switch to cycling.

Julie Harrington, its chief executive, said, “Our country is undoubtedly at a crossroads, and we now face a stark choice between the old routine of cars, congestion and pollution or a new future of healthy streets, happy people and cleaner air.

“All of our research shows that people want to cycle more, and we now urge local authorities to seize the moment and make the most of the support offered by government.”

The UK capital has been investing in cycling and walking for many years, and the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has tripled investment in protected cycle routes over the past four years.

Norman, whose previous role was global partnerships director at Nike, said,”This is something we’ve wanted to push for and change for a long time.

“The emergency gives us no option but to accelerate this, and the way we will do it is through emergency measures. What we’re putting in place may not be the prettiest, such as cones and bollards, but are the things that provide the temporary protection required.

“We will then review and monitor these measures and hopefully upgrade them, so that some work better. What we’ve seen with our programs is that once things are in place, people get used to them and like them.”

Norman, who trained as an anthropologist, said there has been a change in behavior during lockdown that is encouraging.

Cyclists enjoy a trip to the countryside near Xianju city, Zhejiang province, last month. WANG HUABIN/CHINA DAILY

“Leisure cycling has increased massively. In some places in London, we’ve seen three times more cycling … and the bike industry is telling us that 70 percent of their sales are to people new to cycling or returning after a break. People are getting their bikes out of hibernation from sheds and balconies, and repairing them.

“We know there is that demand, and what’s important is making sure that people feel safe, so that can be sustained.”

Norman said,”We are on a journey here-we are learning from them. I was over there (continental Europe) last year looking at some of their infrastructure and their approaches, and we can accelerate our plans with that learning.

“Coming out of this lockdown, we see Milan delivering cycle lanes, Madrid are looking at it, Berlin are doing things, cities in the US are doing things, so I think we have to learn but make it work in a London context, because every city is unique.”

He added that because of the way the governance of London is set up, each borough needs to collaborate, and that across the city there have been calls from people for their local councilors to cooperate and accelerate the changes.

“I talk regularly to counterparts in other cities, and we are all looking at the same approach. It will be a collaborative effort.

“We’ve done poll research in London and found that 91 percent of people don’t want to go back to life as it was before. If there is a silver lining in this very dark cloud, then we can look at changing some of our behavior, to make a greener, cleaner recovery.

“We all know that climate change is not going away, irrespective of the lockdowns in cities, so we need to take these challenges seriously. The amount of media coverage and interest in what cities worldwide are doing in terms of changing the way transport works shows the appetite and interest is there, and I think that demand will be sustained.”

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